SpaceX progress on Dragon abort test and Raptor engine
SpaceX provided another glimpse into their future ambitions by announcing they have completed a review of their 2014 abort test for their commercial crew program. The company also announced they would begin testing of their new Raptor engine – a key element of their Mars mission architecture – early next year at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.
Most of SpaceX’s current focus is on the upcoming salvo of missions, with the second launch of their upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 aiming to follow up the success of the Cassiope mission.
The launch vehicle – and its passenger, the SES-8 satellite – are both undergoing launch processing at SpaceX’s SLC-40 complex. However, the launch date has since slipped to a NET (No Earlier Than) November 22 launch date, per L2’s SpaceX section.
Efforts into the Upper Stage re-start investigation are ongoing, following its issue during the Cassiope mission. While the Canadian satellite was successfully deployed, a re-start of the stage was attempted as part of SpaceX’s fully-reusable launch vehicle aspirations.
The relevance to the SES-8 mission is the requirement to re-start the upper stage as part of the satellite’s mission profile. It is understood the stage re-starts without issue during ground testing, but may have a unique issue once in the cold vacuum of space.
With the delay to the SES-8 mission, the prospect of the next flight of the F9 v1.1 – carrying the Thaicom-6 satellite – occurring just one month later are all-but gone.
A separation of 30 days between launches is understood to be a hard limit, resulting in the Thaicom-6 mission having to avoid the holiday period and re-target for a launch in the new year.
All launch dates are subject to change, with the realigned target of November 22 for SES-8 a preliminary placeholder, subject to approval from the Eastern Range. Should approval be granted, the launch window will stretch from 13:28 to 15:28 local time, per L2.
Dragon Abort Test:
Following the SES-8 and Thaicom-6 missions, SpaceX will move into preparations for the fourth Dragon mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
The CRS-3 (SpX-3) mission is tracking a February 11, 2014 NET – also subject to change based on the success of the preceding launches and the continually busy Visiting Vehicle (VV) schedule at the orbital outpost.
With an eye to the future, one where Dragons could be transporting NASA astronauts to the Station, as opposed to just cargo, SpaceX and NASA completed a review of a 2014 test of Dragon’s abort capabilities – a key element of allowing humans onboard their spacecraft.
Thus far, every Dragon has successfully returned home via current method of parachute landings into the Pacific Ocean. This will eventually be replaced by propulsive landings on terra firma.
With future Dragon spacecraft sporting a series of eight SuperDraco liquid engines – built into the side walls of the capsule – these thrusters will also provide an initial Launch Abort System (LAS) capability, by producing up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to drive the Dragon away from a failing launch vehicle.
Because the system is integrated with the Dragon – as opposed to a Tower system that normally requires jettison shortly after first stage flight – the spacecraft can technically abort within much longer periods.
In preparation for a summer 2014 test, SpaceX recently laid out its plan to demonstrate the Dragon spacecraft’s ability to abort in the event of an in-flight emergency.
The in-flight abort test plan provided an assessment of the SuperDraco engines, the software that would issue the abort command, and the interface between the Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket on which the spacecraft will be launched.
“It’s critical to have a launch abort system in which NASA and SpaceX can have confidence,” noted Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “When you put humans aboard, safety and reliability are paramount and this review and the upcoming tests will help prove their space transportation system is on the right track.”
The review – conducted last month at at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California – included experts from NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
It was also the eighth of 15 milestone under SpaceX ‘s NASAs Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative, which runs through to the summer of 2014.
The overall plan involves a pad abort test in the spring of next year, involving a Dragon being launched from the test stand via the ignition of the abort engines, prior to the initiation of the separation command. At around 5,000 feet, the spacecraft’s parachutes will deploy resulting in a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.
A successful test will allow for the in-flight abort test to occur in the summer.
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“With NASA’s support, SpaceX continues to implement the necessary modifications to equip Dragon to fly crew,” added former Shuttle astronaut Garrett Reisman, commercial crew project manager at SpaceX.
“SpaceX and NASA believe in rigorous flight testing and we are looking forward to putting our SuperDraco launch abort system through these critical tests, starting with the pad abort test in the spring and followed by the in-flight abort test in the summer.”
During the in-flight abort test, a Dragon spacecraft will launch on a standard Falcon 9 from SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral launch site, with an abort command issued approximately 73 seconds into the flight – during the MaxQ phase of ascent.
To monitor the test, Dragon will be outfitted with about 270 special sensors to measure a wide variety of stresses and acceleration effects on the spacecraft. An instrumented mannequin, similar to a crash test dummy, also will be inside.
The Dragon will be recovered via the deployment of its parachutes for a splashdown in the Atlantic, where a ship will be pre-positioned for simulated rescue operations, before the Dragon is returned to Port Canaveral by barge.
However, the forward plan – per SpaceX’s ambitions – is the use of the Draco engines during the end portion of the mission, allowing Dragon to land propulsively. Once this capability is online, in tandem with the return of the First and Second stages, SpaceX will be in the position of returning all of the launch system hardware to the ground for reuse.
Propulsive landing of the Dragon will be one of the key technologies used when SpaceX begin to fly crews on the spacecraft. However, the timing of the switch from water to ground landings will be negotiated between SpaceX and NASA.
While funding concerns for the Commercial Crew Program have resulted in internal manifests (L2) showing the first NASA crew to fly on a commercial vehicle to the ISS (USCV-1) has slipped to the end of 2017, SpaceX should be in the position to debut the crewed Dragon via an internally selected crew, sometime around 2015.
However, Earth isn’t the only landing destination for Dragon, with SpaceX holding ambitions of landing on the Moon and more notably Mars.
Nicknamed “Red Dragon” – SpaceX have made no secret about heading to Mars, even publishing a graphic of their spacecraft touching down on the Red Planet.
Almost as interesting as seeing Dragon on Mars are the support modules in the backdrop. All Mars missions will require a large amount of hardware being staged at Mars to provide all the necessities the human crew will need to survive on the Red Planet – and the ability for them to return home.
As with NASA’s own plans for crewed Martian missions, you need a very big rocket to loft large elements of hardware uphill and on its way to Mars.
Key to SpaceX’s Martian exploits is likely to be a new engine known as the Raptor.
Raptor would provide a major sea-change in SpaceX’s propulsion, given it is set to be powered by methane and liquid oxygen (LOX), as opposed to the RP-1 kerosene and LOX currently employed with Falcon 9’s Merlin engines.
Although the engine – first referenced in 2009 – was initially cited for a role powering an Upper Stage, it appears that the Raptor is now serving as the main engine for the first stage of a new, yet-to-be-formally-announced rocket.
Very few details have been released by SpaceX, even when directly queried by this site earlier this year. However, the announcement of an agreement with the Stennis Space Center has revealed the company is indeed working on the development of the Raptor.
Under a future engine testing agreement, SpaceX will upgrade the E-2 test stand at Stennis with methane capability.
“This agreement supports SpaceX’s efforts for continued engine research and development in parallel with our growing operational testing programs,” noted Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX President. “We are excited to bring this R&D program to Stennis, and we look forward to a long term relationship with the center and the state of Mississippi.”
The only detail about the engine in the release noted it will be capable of generating nearly 300 tons of thrust in vacuum, around four times more powerful than the Merlin 1D.
However, it is possible a Raptor engine set could become the baseline for a huge future rocket to be used by SpaceX for missions to Mars, along with a potential role with a Mars ascent stage.
As such, Raptor could be focused on a future role with the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) architecture.
Per the near-term goals, infrastructure improvements at the E-2 test stand will begin upon execution of the announced agreement, with testing expected to start in early 2014.
(Images: via SpaceX, NASA and L2’s SpaceX Special Section, which includes over 1,000 unreleased hi res images from Dragon’s three flights to the ISS. Special section also contains presentations, videos, images (Over 3,500MB in size), space industry member discussion and more.)
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